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CD Review

Serge Prokofieff

Complete Piano Sonatas

  • Sonata for Piano #1 in F minor, Op. 1
  • Sonata for Piano #2 in D minor, Op. 14
  • Sonata for Piano #3 in A minor, Op. 28
  • Sonata for Piano #4 in C minor, Op. 29
  • Sonata for Piano #5 in C Major, Op. 38
  • Sonata for Piano #5 in C Major, Op. 135
  • Sonata for Piano #6 in A Major, Op. 82
  • Sonata for Piano #7 in B Flat Major, Op. 83
  • Sonata for Piano #8 in B Flat Major, Op. 84
  • Sonata for Piano #9 in C Major, Op. 103
  • Sonata for Piano #10 in C minor, Op. 137
  • 4 Pieces, Op. 4
  • Toccata in D minor, Op. 11
  • 5 Sarcasms, Op. 17
  • Visions fugitives, Op. 22
Barbara Nissman, piano
Previously released on Newport Classic 60092/3/4, and reproduced by license from Sony
Notes on each work by Nissman
Pierian 7/8/9
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Selected Comparisons:

Yefim Bronfman: Sonatas 2, 3, 5, 7, 8, 9: Sony SK 53273, Sony MK44680
Bernd Glemser: Sonatas 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 9: Naxos 554270, Naxos 555030
Hans Graf: Sonata 5: Period Records SPL599
Sviatoslav Richter: Sonata 8: DG 449744-2

As a composer, Prokofieff was enormously inventive melodically and rhythmically without departing as drastically from traditional musical practice as other 20th-century composers more consistently regarded as modernist.; all his sonatas have key signatures, for instance, and he had a very great lyrical gift, evident throughout his career. Poulenc nicknamed him the "Russian Liszt." In some of his works, especially early in his career, Prokofieff used enough dissonance and irregular rhythms to earn himself a reputation as the "bad boy" of music, and some of these works, recorded here, he thought best not to show his conservative conservatory professors. I have to confess that to my own ears, dissonance needs to be much greater than this even to register as such in my mind.

I do not know of a twentieth century composer who wrote as many piano sonatas as Prokofieff. And, in the tradition of Mozart and Beethoven, Prokofieff wrote some of his piano works for his own use in performance; he earned his living at various times, especially while in exile from Russia, performing on the concert circuit. Some of them-especially – are clearly fiendishly difficult to play and, accordingly, thrilling to listen to.

Prokofieff was a powerful pianist, with large hands. These celebrated performances by Nissman exhibit the required power – as well as the inherent lyricism – in the works. The selected comparisons I list also exhibit power and lyricism in varying degrees. Bronfman, Glemser and Richter are all brilliant pianists. In preparing this review I spent quite a few hours in one-on-one comparisons of different performances of each sonata, and in the process acquiring a better appreciation, not only of the works but also the range of legitimate interpretations of them. A soloist necessarily displays differences of both skill and musical temperament even while respecting a composer's intentions.

(As I have not had convenient access to the scores, I have not checked some passages about which I have wondered if the soloists were taking liberties – though my Italian dictionary got some use.) Without attempting an exhaustive description I will comment on some differences I found outstanding.

Nissman's phrasing and articulation are very clear, notably in passages where both hands are playing important lines, and her playing is straightforward and unmannered. Her range of dynamics is great, from the quietly gentle to the thunderous. Prokofieff's pianistic style tends strongly to the staccato-percussive, but not always; Nissman's playing can be resonant or bell-like when called for.

Prokofiev's piano sonatas can be grouped into "early"-1-5; the "war sonatas," written during World War II, and which were among the works which got him into official trouble in 1948; and #9, a late work which Nissman says is "the most pastoral and perhaps the most accessible." There is a fragment of a tenth, which is included in this collection.

The first numbered sonata (though preceeded by six others) is also Prokofieff's Op. 1, in F minor. In a single movement, less than seven minutes long, its style does not differ greatly from Rachmaninoff's.

Prokofiev's Sonata #3, in A minor, Op. 28 ("From Old Notebooks") is also in a single movement. Marked "Allegro tempestoso," it is certainly stormy for the most part, but is twice relieved by a gentle second subject.

Nissman gives an especially brilliant performance of Sonata 2, D minor, Op. 14, which is in four movements. Bronfman is also excellent, showing extraordinary rhythmic control, as in all of his playing. He takes the first movement faster than Nissman. Sonata 4, Op. 29, C minor (also named "From Old Notebooks" is in three movements. The first is marked Allegro molto sostenuto, but in the absence of a score I am not too sure about that "sostenuto" part, because the tempo certainly varies. The second movement is exquisite, as Nissman plays it, both in its gentle lyricism and rhythmic expressiveness. Glemser, the winner of seventeen (!) international competitions, plays more sharply and more heavily than Nissman in that andante. (The heaviness may be partly the recording engineer's mike placement, which definitely brings out that end of the keyboard in Glemser's recordings.)

Sonata #5, C Major, Op. 38, is perhaps the Cinderella of Prokofieff's sonatas, not always getting enough respect, but it is actually my favorite.

I love it. Its fresh crispness, especially as played by Hans Graf, whose performance-of uncertain vintage – I have on a truly ancient vinyl recording (which showed its age even when new). It once helped clear my musical palate after years of overindulgence in 19th-century music in my youth. That recording also included a brilliant Richter/Kondrashin performance of Prokofieff's Piano Concerto #1. Both performances remain my favorites of those works and I don't think this is just because I "imprinted" on them. Whether I am right or mistaken about that, my second favorite performance of this sonata is Nissman's, probably because she and Graf maintain about the same pace. Both play the work faster than Bronfman and Glemser, by well over two minutes; and it is not a long work (about 13:15 to 15:47).

Nissman is very fine in Sonata 6. (A minor, Op. 82.) Her opening is strongly articulated. And – about a minute from the end of the first movement-she plays decrescendo quite gracefully. In comparison, Glemser's opening really bounces; later he is emphatic. Nissman is more impressive than Glemser in the opening of the second movement. Her third movement, "valzer lentissimo," is gentle with some lilt; her playing brings out the waltz rhythm more than Glemser's. However, he respects the "lentissimo" instruction much more; neither actually sounds too fast or too slow, despite a considerable tempo difference. Nissman's vivace finale is definitely lively but a slower passage is bell-like and there is some soft playing further on. Glemser is also effective here.

Sonata #7, B Flat Major, Op. 83, is relatively short. In the first of three movements, marked Allegro inquieto, Nissman brings out the restless or nervous mood more than Bronfman with very staccato playing, and provides greater contrast. In the second movement she articulates the melody very clearly; Bronfman's playing ranges from very emphatic to very gentle, with some bell-like notes. As for the sensational finale: Bronfman owns this movement as far as I am concerned. His performance is compelling, with incredible rhythmic control, which he uses to hold things together with a basic beat that sounds jazzy. I heard Bronfman perform this movement as an encore at the Milwaukee Symphony a year or two ago and his performance was even stronger then, if possible.

The movements of Sonata #8, also B Flat Major, Op. 84 are marked Andante dolce, Andante sognando and Vivace. Sognando means dream-like.

In the slow movements Nissman gives a lovely performance of lovely music.

In the finale she is strong and emphatic, with good rhythm and resonant tone. One thing that struck me in this is the emphatic way she emphasizes the final notes of each measure. She also brings out the lyrical element when called for, and exhibits some notable subtleties at the end. In contrast, Richter, whom I have always admired for his strong playing, is too heavy handed in this work, I think. Some of his playing is more harsh than "dolce," and even a bit dull sometimes. He takes almost three minutes more than Nissman in the long first movement. He does have some gentle playing at one point. Richter's finale has some nice bounce at the opening, though I wanted to see more suppleness after that. Some other parts did not seem quite right either, but his concluding measures were brilliant. Bronfman's performance struck me as just right throughout and in the finale his subtly varied attack enhanced the rhythm, which included some wonderful bounce. He provided a superb finish.

Sonata #9, C Major, Op. 103: Allegretto, Allegro strepitoso, Andante tranquillo, Allegro con brio, ma non troppo presto. This is a lovely, mellow work. Even the "strepitoso" movement is not very uproarious in any of these performances; at least this mood is not sustained beyond the opening. And the brio of the finale is mostly in evidence at the beginning of that movement. Nissman gives a fine performance, as usual, with a notably nice crescendo in the third movement, which is not entirely tranquil throughout, the labeling notwithstanding. Bronfman is excellent also. Glemser has some notably nice rippling effects at the opening of the sonata.

Sonata #10, Op. 137, the last music Prokofieff wrote, exists only as a 43 second fragment but Nissman plays it anyway. About it she notes that it "shows a decided affinity to the first twelve measures of the E minor Sonatina of 1931." She does not include that work in this collection but she does include the second version of Sonata #5, Op. 38/135.

She finds it weaker than the original and I would not disagree.

In addition to this integral edition of the sonatas, this three disc set includes more than forty minutes of some significant early works by Prokofieff, which are mentioned prominently in his biographies. I had not heard them before, myself, but I was extremely glad to hear Sarcasms, Op. 17, Visions Fugitives, Op. 22, the fascinating Suggestion diabolique, from Four Pieces, Op. 4 and the Toccata, Op. 11, which inspired several 20th-century composers to take up this old form.

The rcording quality on this set is excellent. I strongly recommend it to anyone who likes the work of this very great and distinctive composer.

Copyright © 2006, R. James Tobin